The Chinese economy just overtook the United States economy
to become the largest in the world. For the first time since Ulysses S. Grant was
president, America is not the leading economic power on the planet. The
International Monetary Fund recently released the latest numbers for
the world economy. And when you measure national economic output in “real”
terms of goods and services, China will this year produce $17.6 trillion —
compared with $17.4 trillion for the U.S.A.
As recently as 2000, we produced nearly three times as much
as the Chinese. To put the numbers slightly differently, China now accounts for
16.5% of the global economy when measured in real purchasing-power terms,
compared with 16.3% for the U.S.
This latest economic earthquake follows the development last
year when China surpassed the U.S. for the first time in terms of global trade.
The looming development over two years ago, but the moment came sooner than I
or anyone else had predicted. China’s recent decision to bring gross domestic
product calculations in line with international standards has revealed activity
that had previously gone uncounted.
These calculations are based on a well-established and
widely used economic measure known as purchasing-power parity (or PPP), which
measures the actual output as opposed to fluctuations in exchange rates. So a
Starbucks venti Frappucino served in Beijing counts the same as a venti
Frappucino served in Minneapolis, regardless of what happens to be going on
among foreign-exchange traders.
PPP is the real way of comparing economies. It is one
reported by the IMF and was, for example, the one used by McKinsey & Co.
consultants back in the 1990s when they undertook a study of economic
productivity on behalf of the British government.
When you look at mere international exchange rates, the U.S.
economy remains bigger than that of China, allegedly by almost 70%. But such
measures, although they are widely followed, are largely meaningless.
Back in 2012, the IMF tried to challenge the importance of
PPP. It is not in anyone’s interest at the IMF that people in the Western world
start focusing too much on the sheer extent of China’s power. But the PPP data
come from the IMF. And it is noteworthy that when the IMF’s official World
Economic Outlook compares countries by their share of world output, it does so
Make no mistake: This is a geopolitical earthquake with a
high reading on the Richter scale. Throughout history, political and military
power have always depended on economic power. Britain was the workshop of the
world before she ruled the waves. And it was Britain’s relative economic
decline that preceded the collapse of her power. And it was a similar story
with previous hegemonic powers such as France and Spain.
This will not change anything tomorrow or next week, but it
will change almost everything in the longer term. We have lived in a world
dominated by the U.S. since at least 1945 and, in many ways, since the late
19th century. And we have lived for 200 years — since the Battle of Waterloo in
1815 — in a world dominated by two reasonably democratic, constitutional
countries in Great Britain and the U.S.A. For all their flaws, the two
countries have been in the vanguard worldwide in terms of civil liberties,
democratic processes and constitutional rights.
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